Judge: No budget, only minimum wage — and only for some

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With no end in sight for the state’s budget mess, a Cook County judge ruled Tuesday that state workers are entitled only to receive the federal minimum wage — a ruling the Illinois comptroller’s office said it can’t carry out.

Judge Diane Larsen, calling the state payroll issue “somewhat of an emergency,” sided with the Illinois attorney general’s office, which argued that under the state constitution, wages must be paid through an approved budget; without one, essential workers can only be paid federal minimum wage and overtime under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

“The court’s decision is constrained by the Illinois constitution,” Larsen said.

State Comptroller Leslie Geissler Munger said her office would appeal.

“I am disappointed and respectfully disagree with today’s ruling,” Munger said in a statement. “We went to court to ensure that my office can comply with federal law and compensate employees for services they are already providing to the state. Ultimately, that can best be accomplished by paying all workers as scheduled. I am most concerned about the impact this decision will have on our ability to pay those providing services to our most vulnerable residents, and I will continue to seek a remedy with their interests at the forefront of my mind.”

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Attorney General Lisa Madigan put the blame squarely on Springfield in a statement.

“This entire situation has been caused by the failure of the governor and the legislature to enact a budget,” Madigan said.

“I absolutely want state employees to be paid their full wages. But the Illinois Constitution and case law are clear: The state cannot pay employees without a budget.The judge’s order reaffirms this.”

Seeking to go another route, Gov. Bruce Rauner dispatched a letter to state workers Tuesday evening, pledging to work with GOP leaders in the House and Senate to craft legislation creating a separate appropriation for workers’ salaries.

“Our Administration is currently drafting legislationthat will make state employee pay a continuing appropriation for the fiscal year, guaranteeing you get paid,” the governor wrote. “Legislators are alreadyguaranteed their pay this month under continuing appropriations — youshould be too.”

Facing a budget impasse, Madigan’s and Munger’s offices had sought clarification from the courts about how to make payroll. Brett Legner, representing Madigan’s office, argued Tuesday that federal law offers a “very limited exemption,” allowing minimum wage payments and overtime to essential employees.

“We’re not here to represent the desired choice; we’re here to represent the required choice,” Legner said, adding, “We’re not here without sympathy; we’re not here because we want to be.”

But David Gustman, representing Munger’s office, said the comptroller’s office doesn’t have the ability to change how and whom it pays.

“Their position, unfortunately, will result in no one getting paid,” Gustman told Larsen.

The problem, Munger’s office says, is twofold: It doesn’t have a list of all the state’s essential employees; and it is operating with an antiquated, inefficient accounting system that can’t currently handle across-the-board payroll changes.

But Larsen said an inability to comply with an order isn’t a reason not to issue it. She also criticized the state for putting off — for years — updating state accounting systems.

Union leaders reacted with disappointment to Larsen’s ruling.

“Public service workers in state government are on the job despite the lack of a state budget for the fiscal year that started July 1,” AFSCME Council 31 executive director Roberta Lynch said in a statement. “Throughout Illinois they are keeping their communities safe, protecting kids, caring for veterans and people with disabilities, and providing countless other vital public services – and they should be paid for their work on time and in full. We are disappointed by the Cook County judge’s decision to the contrary, and we intend to appeal it.”

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